The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 10. Wordsworth

Edgeworth represents the best of the many system-makers who tried to give effect to the principles of Émile. Wordsworth, although as ready as Rousseau to rely upon liberty and childish instinct as guideposts for the educator, poured scorn upon system-mongers and their product, “the model child,” a prodigy of useful information, precocious criticism and self-conceit. The Prelude relates the course of the poet’s own upbringing at school (1778–86) and at Cambridge (1787–91), and parenthetically shows how he himself would educate “according to Nature”; but he is, perhaps, too prone to see the general in the particular, and, consequently, to overlook the powers and the needs of commonplace boys and men. A different note is struck in The Excursion (1814), the eighth and ninth books of which expose the essential evils of the industrial revolution, and express the poet’s confident belief that a national scheme of education following the proposals of Andrew Bell could yet overcome them. Thirty years later, he recorded his sorrow that no such plan had been put into operation.

Maria Edgeworth’s earliest book, Letters for Literary Ladies (1795), presents the then customary arguments on female disability as conceived by the complacent male, who is allowed, on the whole, to get the better of the dispute; incidental reference is made to the increasing attention then being paid to the education of girls. The modern touch is not wanting; a good cook, we are told, is only an empirical chemist.

A quite unmerited neglect has fallen upon the educational writings of the Edgeworths, who taught principles which have since been accepted as revelations, when presented by a German or an Italian author. This is the more to be regretted, since these two Irish writers were capable of wisdom so unusual as the following:

  • In education, we must, however, consider the actual state of manners in that world in which our pupils are to live, as well as our wishes or our hopes of its gradual improvement.